Windrush’s forgotten truth
70 years ago the Empire Windrush docked in Essex carrying 1027 mostly West Indian settlers on a voyage from Jamaica, including men and women who served in Britain armed forces during the Second World War.
In 1948, Empire Windrush, which was en route from Australia to England via the Atlantic, docked in Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up servicemen who were on leave. The British Nationality Act 1948 had just been passed, giving the status of citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC status) to all British subjects connected with the United Kingdom or a British colony. Prior to 1962, the UK had no immigration control for CUKCs, who could settle indefinitely in the UK without restrictions. The ship was far from full, and so an opportunistic advertisement was placed in a Jamaican newspaper offering cheap transport on the ship for anybody who wanted to come and work in the UK. Many former servicemen took this opportunity to return to Britain with the hopes of finding better employment including in some cases rejoining the RAF; others decided to make the journey just to see what the ‘mother country’ was like. One passenger later recalled that demand for tickets far exceeded the supply and there was a long queue to obtain one.
The ship docked at the Port of Tilbury, near London, on 21 June 1948, and the 1027 passengers began disembarking the next day. A commonly given figure for the number of West Indian immigrants on board is 492 based understandably on news reports in the media at the time, which variously announced that “more than 400”, “430” or “500” Jamaican men had arrived in Britain. However, the ship’s records, kept in the United Kingdom National Archives indicate conclusively that 802 passengers gave their last place of residence as a country in the Caribbean.
But generally unknown is the previously uncatalogued radio report buried in the BBC’s archives and discovered by James Procter, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature from Newcastle University UK, which reveals the Windrush story actually began, not as a journey to the UK but as a voyage out.
Broadcast from London to the Caribbean in April 1948, the BBC script read by West Indian cricketer Bertie Clarke opens:
“The Colonial Office have announced that the last big draft of airmen for repatriation will sail from Tilbury on May 8th on the Empire Windrush.” The transmission continues: “The Officers-in-Charge will be Flight Lieutenant Johnny Smythe, a West African who still carries around several bits of shrapnel in his lungs and side from his war service and Flight Lieutenant J.J. Blair of Jamaica who won the DFC.” The DFC is the Distinguished Flying Cross which is awarded to Royal Air Force personnel for acts of valour, courage or devotion.
The 500 airmen on board had fought in World War II and according to the broadcast, were “anxious” to get home to Jamaica, British Guiana, Trinidad, Barbados, British Honduras and Antigua.
The ship stopped at Jamaica, Trinidad and Bermuda before heading back to England on the famous journey to Tilbury which has entered history.
“The war wounds and war medals of this other Windrush generation are also, of course, the same generation that subsequently arrived in Britain shortly after,” says Professor Procter, who uncovered the report while carrying out research for his new book at the BBC’s archive in Caversham. “So why is it that we have chosen to remember the Windrush as a story of arrival, and not a story of departure?”
As we commemorate this anniversary it is important to remember that the UK Government was set on deporting members of the Windrush generation until it was forced to change course due to public outcry.
As Guardian journalist Gary Young writes: “it has yet to fully sink in that what was wrong for the Windrush generation is wrong for all immigrants, and that when we argue for a more humane and less hostile environment for immigrants, we do so not just for the sake of foreigners. We do it for ourselves”